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Lena Dunham explains why Girls avoided the “traditional sitcom ending”

Photo: Mark Schafer/HBO
Photo: Mark Schafer/HBO

This post discusses plot points for the series finale of Girls.

And with a smile and a faint rendition Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” Girls is done. In the series’ final episode we find Hannah in Upstate New York adjusting (rather poorly) to motherhood. Marnie is by her side, but the type-A manner in which she approaches childrearing only grates on Hannah, who maintains the same level of self-involvement we’ve seen throughout the series. But it all concludes on an intentionally vague yet hopeful moment of bonding between Hannah and her infant, Grover, a quiet ending to a much-discussed show.

Dunham’s HBO project has always liked to experiment with form. And while the penultimate half hour brought together all of the main characters for what felt like a more traditional goodbye, the finale presents Hannah in a completely new context. The A.V. Club spoke with Dunham and co-showrunner Jenni Konner, who directed “Latching,” about their farewell.

The A.V. Club: Why did you want to take the action of the show—and Hannah herself—away from New York City for the finale?

Jenni Konner: I always think there’s this thing when you live in New York, like this unspoken agreement between everyone who lives there like, “We’re sticking this out. It’s the hardest place to live, but it’s the best city in the world so we are all going to do this together.” And when people leave it’s almost like you’re kind of silently like, “What? How can you abandon our deal together?” It was a big step of maturity for Hannah. I don’t think it was quite giving up on the dream of New York but to accept a little bit that it kicked her ass, and that the way to be a better mother and a more stable force is to move out of the city and take this job. I thought it just showed growth with Hannah. And we also really wanted it to look very different from the rest of the show and feel very different.

Lena Dunham: I think we just wanted to do something that didn’t feel like anything we had done before. In a lot of ways, we’ve never treated her like a traditional sitcom character, and wanted to not give her a traditional sitcom ending. I just remember being really excited when I went into editing and found that Jenni had established this really interesting relationship with only using diegetic sound and keeping music to a minimum. When I showed up and she had shot-listed and had done this kind of Altman-y approach to the fight scenes. She was really thinking about it as its own thing, almost like she was styling a new pilot. And that was really exciting. She did everything from decorate the new house to shot-list an entirely new world.

AVC: Lena, you thought the fight between Hannah and her mom, Loreen, was Altman-y?

LD: Yeah, I thought that fight was really Altman-y.

JK: The way I shot it was we did it like a play. We rehearsed it a bunch of times, and there were four cameras in place, and you just followed the fight through. Instead of shooting that with any coverage or anything like that, we just shot it with four cameras in four places so they could really do it like a play. And Lena was so good, and Becky Ann Baker is unbelievable. She’s such a strong theater actor. It got to feel like we were doing it live.

Photo: Mark Schafer/HBO

AVC: In some ways episode nine feels a little bit more like your traditional ending. What was it about that structure that interested you?

JK: Judd [Apatow, producer] had this idea really: “Why don’t we do the finale that’s like a traditional finale—which isn’t even quite a traditional finale, but it’s the Girls-iest version we can do—and then do the episode that sort of shows almost what the future would be?” That’s what we were trying to do—kind of answer both questions. “Where does everybody wind up?” But really, what’s Hannah going to be like as a mother, and what’s happening with Hannah and Marnie’s friendship?

LD: We thought a lot about how to finish up the situation with Hannah and Marnie’s friendship where we felt that we were giving it what it deserves, because it is an incredibly special bond while also not locking these women into a lifetime of tragic codependence. That is the challenge of these incredibly emotional female friendships in your 20s. How do you get someone space to be themselves and the space to grow while also honoring the incredible bond that you’ve created?

AVC: When the show started it was Hannah and Marnie living together. Shosh wasn’t in the picture yet. Jessa had just arrived back in town. What was the last word that you wanted to get out there about Hannah and Marnie’s friendship?

LD: I think the thing that Jenni and I talked about was that they need to separate but not quite yet. They are both like, “We understand that we can’t live our whole lives like this. We understand that this level of codependence isn’t healthy, but please can we have it for another couple of months.”

AVC: What was your thinking about closing out everyone’s stories? There’s a lot left hanging with Jessa. You don’t really know what’s going on with her.

JK: I think Jessa is going to have the hardest time in a lot of ways. She struggles with happiness more than anyone.

LD: It’s interesting because people have talked a lot with Hannah’s relationship to mental illness in the show, because Hannah’s been very open about her OCD. But I actually think Jessa’s the character that struggles most deeply with literally issues of brain chemistry. I’ve always thought that she—and Jemima [Kirke] and I’ve talked [about this]—has very, very bad clinical depression that she’s constantly fighting. And it’s the reason she’s gotten into drugs, and it’s the reason she’s engaged in casual sex, is because she’s numbing herself in a pretty intense way, numbing herself from experience, numbing herself from situations. I think that she often thinks something like a relationship with Adam will be the quick fix, but, as they say in The Brady Bunch Movie, “wherever you go, there you are.”

I foresee for her: It’s like she tries to become a therapist, then she decides she’s going to be a reiki healer, then she’s like, “No, I’m going to work in the foster-to-adopt system…” That kind of searching for purpose that is sort of glamorous when you’re 22, and sort of tragic when you’re 49. Jemima and I have talked a lot about the fact that it’s easy to think Jemima can act a little Jessa-y in interviews, but the thing that separates her from Jessa is that Jemima has a very strong creative drive that keeps her afloat, and Jessa doesn’t. And she had a nonchalance that covered up a lot, a lot, a lot of pain and numbness. That last scene that we shot together where she’s apologizing and gives me the baby dress, that was a moment where I felt like I had a whole new understanding of that character, and I was like, “Oh, she’s in pain that we can’t imagine.”

Photo: Mark Schafter/HBO

AVC: What was the environment on set like during the finale? What was it like working with the baby?

JK: I mean, the babies were impossible, they were adorable. The laws, as they should be, surrounding the protection of infants are really intense, so we got them for, like, a minute and a half each. I have to say about these actors: They are not super professional. They do not take direction well, and they like to eat while they are working, so there were a lot of issues I had with them, and it wound up informing a lot of the amount of shooting we did on those scenes.

LD: Jenni made a lot of creative choices about it.

JK: I mean, I made the choices I had to make.

AVC: You end with this look of contentment on Hannah’s face. How do you interpret that last moment for yourselves?

LD: Jenni said something that I thought was really smart, which was she really wanted to shoot it in a way where you didn’t know what that last moment—we don’t know if Grover latched and it was a relief. We don’t know if Grover latched and it was fucking terrifying. We don’t know if she gasping because he still won’t latch. It’s all about Hannah accepting and giving in to this person’s need for her. It’s not about what’s actually happening below the boob line. Would you agree, Jenni?

JK: There’s a huge discussion about breastfeeding all through it, and there’s pros and cons in all of that and we’re definitely not coming in on one side. We were just, story-wise, trying to figure out what would be the thing that would make her feel really disconnected from motherhood, and I think this happens a lot. I’ve seen it with a lot of my friends. You have trouble breastfeeding, and for some reason it’s supposed to be so organic that you feel like you’re doing something incorrect. That would be a thing, in Hannah’s narcissism and her new motherhood, she’s still saying, “This baby doesn’t like me,” as if a baby has a feeling about anything that’s just taking care of it. That was the idea behind that story.